When a Door is a Jar
By Melvin Sterne
The boy was Simon and the girl was Becky and they were young and foolish and carefree as only college students can be. And it was in Austin, Texas, February of 1975, and there was a party with lots of beer and marijuana what they called "progressive country" playing loud on somebody's stereo Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Greasy Wheels. Most couples danced and those who didn't pretended to know what they were talking about and tried to come across as confident and cool. But Simon was alone, out-of-sight on the balcony, staring out at the lights of Austin. Becky was on the couch with a boy named Jeeter who had bad breath, worse teeth, and hands a little too free for her liking. She excused herself and went out for a breath of fresh air and did not see Simon standing off to one side. She leaned on the railing and watched the white cloud of her breath rise slowly into the cold, starry sky.
Simon was tall and a little thin, but not in an unhealthy way, just thin like a runner, like there was nothing to him. His hair was long and curly and brown and his threadbare jeans faded almost white like everyone's in those days. He wore a light blue Grateful Dead tee shirt, Tony Lama boots, black, and appropriately weathered. Two things were different about him. He wore a red painter's cap instead of a cowboy hat, and he wore a corduroy sports coat instead of the close-fitting denim jackets most of the boys preferred. The jacket was light brown, almost gold.
Becky was short and curvy in all the right ways, with brown hair and small, fat lips. Kissing lips, boys called them. And she had dimples and a ready smile that seemed, sometimes, a little too ready, eyes that jumped, smile that raised more questions than it answered. And she wore a simple white cotton blouse with a long, blue, cotton, flower-print dress that flowed to her sandals and then some.
For five full minutes she stood with Simon behind her before Simon cleared his throat and said, "I don't mean to startle you, but I've been standing here all this time and I don't want you to turn around and think I was sneaking up on you."
Becky was startled but tried not to show it. She turned, said, "Oh. It's you."
"Me." He stared at her. "Do I know you?"
"No," she said, "but I noticed you earlier. I wondered where you got off to. I thought maybe you went home."
Simon shook his head. "No, just here."
"Thinking." And when Becky didn't follow up he drew a joint from the inside pocket of his jacket and lit it, took a long toke, then offered it to Becky.
She took a hit.
"I'm Simon," he said.
"Becky," she said, passing the joint back. "And what are you thinking?"
"You play chess?"
"You ever play blindfolded?"
He looked at her. Not many women he knew played chess, but she didn't look like the lying kind. "When you play blindfolded, the other player's pieces are invisible. Unless you can remember them all, you never know where they are, or where they moved. But what would it be like to play if all the pieces started out random? Scrambled? What if you never knew where the pieces were? How would it be to play then?"
Becky thought about this. "It would be hard."
"A lot like life, isn't it?" He took a long hit and passed her the joint.
In the morning Simon woke in a tangle of sheets in strange apartment. He kissed the dimple on the smiling, sleeping girl's cheek and let himself out, making certain the door was locked behind him. The building was a beehive among beehives, bewildering, featureless lumps that made everything alike on the outside. A mega-complex of 30 or 40 towers. Standing on the main road and looking back Simon thought, I should have took a phone number. He could not tell which building she was in. He did not remember her name. He did not remember making love even though they made love three times. He did not remember their conversation on the balcony, or the way she stood on tiptoe to kiss him first, drawing him close to her with her fists tightly gripping the lapels of his jacket. He did not remember the way her breasts pressed against his chest through the thin cotton of her blouse and his tee shirt. He did not remember the fierce embrace in which he held her, or the way they staggered out the front door, down the hall, into the elevator, out the door and to the parking lot. He did not remember pulling up her dress in the car to find that she wore no panties. He did not remember her taste on his tongue, or the way she clutched his head in her lap while she was driving. Alcohol does that.
Six years later Simon is living in Seattle. His hair is short, his clothes neat, his dress generally casual. He works for one of those progressive companies that if you can believe this write computer programs for home computers. As in, Why would anybody want a computer in their home? But the company is exploding with forward-thinking young men and women. The atmosphere is loose and the money good (not so good as in, eye-poppingly great, not yet, anyway, but still very good). They dress almost defiantly casual. Simon still wears painter's caps to work, and sports coats. He could wear Grateful Dead tee shirts if he wanted, but he doesn't. And he owns a house, and he has a wife, Renee, and two little daughters, Chase and Finesse. And he hasn't had a drink since he went to prison.
Prison, as in vehicular homicide. As in, it isn't smart to get behind the wheel when you don't know where you are, or where you might be going. The maximum sentence in those days was five years, but Simon was young and a college student, his father connected to people in the law, and the man Simon killed was drunk himself and shouldn't have been urinating in the road at four in the morning. But the law is the law and justice must be served. Simon served a year-and-a-day, and while he was in prison he learned to write code. And in Seattle there were companies that needed people who understood code, and were willing to overlook a youthful indiscretion, even if it involved loss of life.
Some nights, in those days, Simon worked until one or two in the morning. He had been known to sleep on the floor under his desk. He kept a change of clothes at the office. Renee minded, but not that much. You can trust a man like Simon a man who'd made mistakes and owned them, learned from them. You could, in a weird way, even admire him.
But every Wednesday night Simon comes home early. Wednesday night is his AA meeting, and Simon would quit his job, divorce his wife, walk away from all of it before he would give up his home group and his sponsor and the thing that keeps him on the straight and narrow. "It's about values," he says. "I wake up in the morning and I know where I am and what I've done."
The meeting is in a nice church in a nice neighbourhood, not far from Simon's home, and this particular Wednesday, Simon is at the church and there are a hundred folding chairs set up facing a podium, and a row of cloth-covered tables in the back with a stainless steel coffee urn and a kettle of boiling water for tea. There's a mountain of white porcelain cups and saucers, and little cartons of milk, packets of sugar, a tray of cookies, a bin of plastic spoons and a stack of paper napkins.
Almost every week there are new people coming to the meeting, and this week is no exception. The man standing next to Simon in line to get coffee is a little older than Simon, bearded and sullen. He wears faded Levis and a red flannel wool shirt. The cup chatters in his hand. He is nervous and new. Simon sticks out his hand says, "Simon," in a friendly, welcoming kind of way. The man says, "Dave" and promptly drops his cup. They pick up the pieces together. Dave is what they call court-ordered. He's sentenced by a judge to attend meetings as part of his rehabilitation. He just got out of prison for vehicular homicide. He served five full years for killing a baby in a stroller.
They became friends, Simon and Dave. Now, some evenings, Simon visits Dave and they go to meetings together or sit in Dave's kitchen and talk over coffee. What to do next. How to make something out of nothing. How to build a life. Dave sighs and studies the grounds floating in his coffee. "The worst part," he says, "was when they shut the doors at night."
Simon remembers. "They'd clang shut and I'd lie on my bunk and stare up at the ceiling. You fuck up so they take the choices away from you. For five years I laid there every night and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. Nobody to tell and no way to fix it. And I didn't mean to do what I did, but I didn't know how it was going to turn out when I did it. I went this party and met this chick, and we drank all night and went back to her place. And in the morning I was driving home and hit this damn jogger pushing a baby stroller. I mean, who goes jogging with their baby at five in the fucking morning? And I hadn't had a drink in a couple of hours, but I still blew a one-five. But the lady's old man was a state rep. I got five years. And five more probi. And it won't end then, either, and I know that."
"And now what? What have I got left? No job, no future, no nothing. Who's gonna want me?"
"When I was in the joint they had some classes. There was this community college programme. There was a course in the catalogue called CODEWRITING. I thought that was funny. I thought it was like, code, you know, James Bond stuff. The whole reason they had the class was this company called Texas Instruments. They needed people who could write computer programs, so they had some of their own execs set up to teach the classes at night. It was like on-the-job training without the job. Once I got a taste of it, I kind of liked it. You know what I liked about it?"
Dave shakes his head.
"They had calculators, and they had these little computers coming out, and games, and you could push buttons and things happened like magic. You couldn't see it. The code. Invisible. I didn't believe for a minute that somebody would pay me to write this shit. I just wanted to know how it worked. The thing is, there I was, totally under state control, but when I was writing code, I was totally in control. Maybe that's why it stuck. That, and I was good at it."
Dave gets up and pours them both another cup of coffee and Simon looks around. Dave is a bachelor and his place is a shabby little apartment in an old two-story house in a working-class neighborhood. Somebody's American dream turned into the working poor's nightmare. Already rents were shooting through the roof, and real estate, too. Seattle once boasted a sign that read, WILL THE LAST PERSON LEAVING SEATTLE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS. But that was 1971 and Simon wasn't in Seattle then. Now there's this boom on and everybody's feeling it. Dave works at some fucked-up little coffee shop called Starbucks. He slings lattes all day. Simon told him it's better than bartending. But Dave's place usually looks like some single guy lives there and Simon tells him every time they meet that he ought to have some self-respect. Do your laundry, Simon says. Wash your dishes. Mop the floor once in a while. But the place looks pretty good tonight, Simon thinks, and he wonders what's changed.
"Listen," Simon says, "Everything in life presents an opportunity. It depends on what you make of it. All it takes it balls. I got out of jail just like you and I thought my life was over. No degree, in disgrace with my family, no job, no nothing. I mean, who's going to want me? About the only thing going for me was that I made up my mind I wasn't going to drink again. There was that. But about a week after I got out, I got this letter from TI asking if I wanted a job. And a few months after that, I got a call from a recruiter sight-unseen offering me good money to come to Seattle. And I met Renee, and I got two little girls, and we got a house, so here I am. Now the question is, What do you want to do? and What's keeping you from doing it?"
Dave doesn't look like he's listening. He's moving his right index finger around in little circles on the table like he's dialling a phone.
"You ever read Shakespeare?" Simon asks.
"Yeah, a little. In high school I suppose."
"You know, there's this great line in Hamlet when he talks about courage." Simon clears his throat and closes his eyes, remembering a class he took a long time ago. He says, "Who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law's delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus, conscience makes cowards of us all, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action. What have we really to fear?" Simon asks, "but fear itself? People don't fear failure," he adds. "They fear success. Don't let fear stop you from anything. Just do it."
Dave nods, but Simon knows that most people, even when they hear and understand, in the end they chicken out. Fear does that.
And then the next week, when Simon comes to see Dave, Dave mentions casually that his little sister has had some trouble and come to stay with him, and she is from San Francisco, and about this time Simon looks up to see Becky standing at the kitchen door. And Becky looks at Simon, and Simon looks at Becky, and they both know.
She's wearing an Oakland Raiders football jersey over tight jeans. She looks the same, like she hasn't aged a day, but something in her eyes says that she has aged many days and they haven't been easy, and she's still looking for those answers. And she brushes a bang from her forehead and says, "Hello," and Simon says, "Hello," and they look at each other and then she glides out the front door without a word. Later, when Simon leaves, he finds Becky sitting on the front steps, and she comes straight to him and says, "Do you remember me?" When Simon doesn't answer she says, "We met at a party, in Austin, back in " she shrugs " 1975. It was around Valentine's Day."
And then it comes to him, a little bit, anyway, in a foggy kind of flash, and he says, "Yes." Becky says, "You still play chess?"
Simon thinks about the program he just wrote. "I do," he says.
"Would you like to get a beer?" she asks. She nods down the street to a corner where there's a bar.
Simon thinks she must know that he doesn't drink Dave must have said that about him but he says "Okay" anyway, and they walk, not arm-in-arm, but close enough to feel each other's body heat. Becky orders an Anchor Steam and Simon a Diet Coke. Becky looks at him and says, "So you really don't drink?"
Simon nods. "You look good," he says.
"So do you."
They look around.
"Where did you go?" she asks him.
"The next day?"
"I meant the next day."
"I don't know," he says. "It didn't seem important at the time."
The hurt stirs in her eyes.
"Not you," Simon says, "I mean it didn't seem important where I went. In fact, I wanted to see you again, but I didn't remember your name, or have your number, and I couldn't find my way back to your apartment in that mess of buildings."
She watches him closely, looking for the lie.
"I would have come back. There are reasons why I quit drinking, and that's one."
"And what's another?" She sips her beer and looks at him. He's gained a little weight. Not much, but a little. And he wears a ring.
"Have you ever seen everything you've ever wanted, the one, but been afraid to say yes?"
"I have," she said, "but I never got the chance to say."
They're there for an hour. When they get up to leave Becky sways a little. "I bet you quit smoking dope, too," she says.
Simon nods. They have killer weed in Seattle. Simon knows this but he stays clear of it. Some of his coworkers smoke on the roof during breaks and lunch, but he won't touch the stuff. At his car Becky suddenly presses against Simon and he feels her breasts again, hard and bare and free under the jersey, and they are warm and his hand goes to them even though he knows he shouldn't, and she's on tiptoe and her mouth finds his and they kiss long and hard, and when they part she presses a matchbook into his hand and he knows without looking that it has her phone number.
"This time " she says, her voice trailing off. "Call me."
Simon looks into her eyes and he's stuck paralyzed. For a moment the wheels turn and he knows what he should say, but the words catch in his throat. "I will," he says. And all the way home he hates himself for saying it.
Renee is in the living room on the floor with Chase. She's teaching Chase how to draw simple sketches of animals. She's wearing a blue terrycloth bathrobe over a pair of pink shorts. Finesse is on the couch behind them dead-to-the-world asleep as only children can be. Simon kisses Renee on the top of her head. She doesn't look up or say hello. He picks Finesse up and carries her to her crib and nestles her in a blanket to stay warm.
Renee is in bed when he comes out. She's still wearing the bathrobe and shorts. Chase is there beside her, too. Chase likes to sleep between them and this bothers Simon no end.
"You smell like cigarettes," Renee says.
"Dave started again."
Renee says nothing.
Chase is not Simon's daughter, but she doesn't know that. Renee and the father never married, and Renee moved back to Seattle and in with her parents before Chase was born. Renee worked at the bank where Simon opened an account. He thought she was cute and for no reason he went out of his way to stand in the line to her station. When the bank sponsored a fun run she asked him, casually counting a stack of twenties, if he would be in the race, and when he lied and said,
"Yes," she told him that she was too and perhaps they could meet up after.
It was an obvious come-on but when you're an ex-con working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and new in town, come-ons are few and far between, and an obvious come-on is better than none-at-all. They met at the finish line. They went out for breakfast still wet from the run. They met for dinner a few nights later. It was six months before she would let Simon make love to her. By that time they were already planning to marry and looking at houses. Finesse was conceived a few months after the wedding. She was born practically on their anniversary. And their house was nice, and Simon was good at his job, and he loved his daughters, even Chase. But Renee was not what Simon thought she was, or perhaps what he had wanted her to be, and he wondered what he was, or had been, to her. Or what she wanted him to be, or thought he was. She was insecure and cold and controlling, putting on weight. Being with her was something like claustrophobia, or fear of the dark, or maybe asphyxiation. It was worse than a trap, worse even than prison. He did it to himself. There are a million things that can tie you down. A door can open and a door can close, but only you can set yourself free, and an open door that you can't walk through is much, much worse than iron bars. When is a door a jar? There is no jailer as cruel to you as you. He wondered why he hadn't seen this coming.
Thirty years later Simon and Renee are long divorced each twice divorced and they haven't spoken in years. Chase is divorced, as well, but keeping her spirits up and guiding tourists around Crater Lake when the trails aren't snowed in. Finesse is dead, beaten to death by a boyfriend her first year in college. Simon is long gone from Seattle, from software, from all of that. He lives in Hong Kong now, in an impossibly expensive little one-room flat in Tsim Sha Tsui where he keeps a potter's wheel spinning and cranks out authentic Chinese art so fine the tourists think he's a collector or agent they can't conceive of him making it and pester him no end for the artist's name and contact information. He was amused, when he arrived in Hong Kong, to find a shopping center down the street called The One. He doesn't own a computer. He has a cell phone, but only because they don't install land lines anymore. He leaves it at home when he goes out. "Technology," he says, "is so '90s."
Sometimes late at night he sits on a low couch and stares at the peeling yellowed walls and listens to the cacophony of traffic noise that flows through the alley and pours through his window, a din that rises and falls like music and can keep up until almost dawn. The apartment was let as furnished, but Simon knows that the furnishings are collected from the "offscouring of all things until now," as the Apostle Paul might have put it. The things that people leave behind when they go. A Buddhist calendar from 1991. The smiling framed photo of an enchanting Chinese woman in a lovely wedding gown, the glass in the frame, broken. A genuine fake 300-year old incense burner. A torn poster of Bruce Lee. A hand-drawn postcard of smiling monks riding in a tuk-tuk advertising Happy Cambodia. A red glass statue of Chairman Mao.
He did not stay sober, not through all that, though it has now been more than twenty years since his last drink. A few years back he ran into Dave at an AA convention in Bali. Odd, meeting him after all these years. And Dave was now also nearing 20 years sober. And he was doing great a regional manager for Starbucks. A wife he loved. Two boys in high school. A summer cabin at Tahoe.
They laid in the sun on wide, white towels on a seaweed-covered beach swatting stinging flies and talked about old times. Simon danced around the topic like a landmine until he could stand it no longer. "Whatever became of Becky?" he asked.
"Didn't you hear?" Dave said. "I thought you heard."
"I haven't heard a word in years."
"Breast cancer," he said. "They don't usually look for it in women that young. At least, they didn't back then."
And now it is morning and Simon is alone in his room, and the smell of coffee and incense is heavy in the air, and the potter's wheel spins by his workbench in the corner, and the matrix the mixture of clay and water it is ready to be shaped by his will into whatever he desires. But Simon sits on the low couch and stares at the wall remembering a summer long ago when he slipped away from work to spend hours walking in parks with a girl he loved with all his heart from the moment they locked eyes. And the fire of their yearning would bake clay he knew this but as the days and nights wore on, and the call of their bodies went unanswered, the roaring flames settled into embers, and then to ashes, and then one night, when it was pouring rain and Becky turned up loitering outside the elevator in the parking garage at work, and asked him for a ride home and he said "No" and watched the pain well up for a second time in her eyes. And it wasn't for the lack of love, but something else something worse. It was a time that did not belong to him, an obligation imposed on him from the inside. And he knew that if they rode in a car together to a place she called home that he would never return to his family. He knew he would leave Renee someday. He would have to if he wanted to keep his sanity. It was Chase and Finesse that that held him, and Shakespeare was right that conscience doth make cowards of us all. And it does not matter if the door is open or shut, or what we say, or know, or believe, but when we lose the name of action the moment is lost. There are prisons for what you do, and prisons for what you don't. At least, that's what he tells himself. Anyone can handle failure, he once said. But success? Alone in his room Simon wonders what might have been. He sips his coffee and stares at the wall. After a while he gets up and goes to his workbench, takes up a lump of clay, and begins to shape it into the image of a man.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 3 Jul 2018